Ex-Klansman Is Found Guilty in '63 Bombing

New York Times/May 2, 2001
By Kevin Sack

Birmingham, Alabama -- In a case that took 38 years to bring to trial, a Birmingham jury of eight whites and four blacks spent barely two hours in deliberations today before convicting Thomas E. Blanton Jr. of murdering four black girls in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, one of the most horrific attacks of the civil rights era.

Mr. Blanton, 62, became the second of the four original suspects to be convicted in the bombing and was sentenced to four terms of life in prison, one for each of the girls who perished in the blast. When Judge James Garrett asked if he had anything to say before sentencing, Mr. Blanton responded, "No, I guess the good Lord will settle on Judgment Day." He was then led away, hands cuffed in front of him.

Doug Jones, the United States attorney who prosecuted the case, could barely control his emotion as he walked to the courtroom gallery and exchanged long hugs with Chris and Maxine McNair, the parents of Denise McNair, who at 11 was the youngest victim of the explosion.

The McNairs, who have maintained virtual silence about their daughter's death, said they would not comment on the verdict, and an eerie quiet hung in the courtroom for several minutes, as if everyone present was afraid to shatter the solemnity.

Both the prosecution and the defense seemed stunned by the speed of the verdict, which was read at 5:50 p.m. Central time. Mr. Blanton's lawyer, John C. Robbins, pledged to appeal the verdict, saying the case had been decided largely on emotion. Mr. Robbins said he had always thought it would be difficult for Mr. Blanton to receive a fair trial in Birmingham, a city whose image has remained tarnished by the bombing for nearly four decades.

Among the issues that might be presented on appeal, Mr. Robbins suggested, are the admissibility of secretly recorded audiotapes and the composition of the jury, which had no white men. Mr. Jones, who grew up on the outskirts of Birmingham but barely remembers the bombing, was jubilant and clearly relieved.

"They say that justice delayed is justice denied, and, folks, I don't believe that for a minute," Mr. Jones told the reporters who mobbed him on the steps of the Jefferson County Courthouse. "Justice delayed is still justice, and we've got it here in Birmingham, Alabama."

Alpha A. Robertson, who along with the McNairs is the only surviving parent of a victim, said she knew that her daughter, Carole, who was 14, would have been pleased. "I'm very happy that justice came down today, and, you know, that's enough, isn't it?" Mrs. Robertson said. "You know, I didn't know if it would come in my lifetime."

Mrs. Robertson, 82, watched today's closing arguments from a wheelchair in the front row.

Coming more than two decades after the 1977 conviction of Robert Chambliss, the accused ringleader in the bombing, the verdict was particularly gratifying to black residents of Birmingham, where desegregation protests met with some of the most violent resistance of the civil rights struggle.

The city was so racially polarized that Mr. Jones acknowledged today that it would have been hard to win a guilty verdict in the 1960's, when the jury presumably would have been all white.

"This is now another step toward closure," said Dale H. Long, who drove here from Dallas to witness the conviction of the man accused of killing his fellow church band member Cynthia Wesley, who was 14. "There's one more to be tried." Mr. Long was referring to Bobby Frank Cherry, who was indicted along with Mr. Blanton. Mr. Cherry has not been tried because Judge Garrett ruled early last month that he was mentally incompetent.

The prosecution has requested a new psychiatric evaluation, hoping to challenge the judge's determination. The fourth suspect originally identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without being charged. Mr. Chambliss died in prison in 1985.

The fourth victim was Addie Mae Collins, 14. The jurors, 11 women and 1 man, were sequestered during the trial and were not available for comment today. Their names were not disclosed. The verdict was surprising to many in the courtroom not just because of its speed but also because of the immense challenges facing the prosecution in bringing a case so old. Witnesses had died.

The memory of others had grown fuzzy. One witness could not testify in person because he had recently had a stroke. His testimony to a grand jury was instead read. The loss of Mr. Cherry as a co- defendant was thought to be damaging because the case against him arguably was stronger than that against Mr. Blanton, a fellow former Ku Klux Klansman.

What remained was a case that was highly circumstantial, requiring the jury to meld a montage of fuzzy snapshots into a clear picture. Never, as Mr. Robbins pointed out, did the prosecution show how the bomb was made, how it was transported, when it was planted or precisely what Mr. Blanton's role might have been. Even Mr. Jones said after the verdict that "this was not an overwhelming case." He said he had held his breath as each witness took the stand.

And yet Mr. Jones and his fellow prosecutors - Robert Posey, an assistant United States attorney, and Jeff Wallace, an assistant district attorney - prevailed. Their best evidence, both sides agreed, were audiotapes that captured Mr. Blanton speaking about "the bomb," with little detail. One tape was so inaudible that its contents could only be discerned with the help of a transcript pieced together by investigators.

In one recording, made by the F.B.I. in 1964 with a microphone planted in Mr. Blanton's kitchen, the defendant tells his wife about attending a Klan meeting "when we planned the bomb." "Tommy, what meeting are you talking about?" she asks. "We had that meeting to make the bomb," he answers.

On another tape, this one made by a Blanton friend who had become an F.B.I. informer, Mr. Blanton can be heard speaking generically about bombings without admitting to anything specific about the 16th Street attack. "They ain't gonna catch me when I bomb my next church," Mr. Blanton says at one point.

"How did you do that, Tommy?" the informer asks. "Oh, it wasn't easy, boy; I'll tell you," Mr. Blanton says. In their closing statements today, prosecutors characterized Mr. Blanton's comments as a confession and said it was reinforced by holes and alterations in his alibi for the night before the Sept. 15 blast, when they believe the bomb was planted.

But Mr. Robbins, who presented only two defense witnesses to counter the prosecution's 22, said the tapes fell far short of direct evidence. He attacked the credibility of some witnesses and contradictions in the testimony of others, and argued that the case dissolved as pieces of the puzzle were discredited.

"Every one of you knows that this case is somehow linked with the image of this city," Mr. Robbins told the jury, gesturing toward a second- story gallery filled with reporters from around the world. "Don't get caught up in it." But Mr. Jones emphasized that the jury had an opportunity to solve a crime that has haunted Birmingham for four decades, long before the city's transformation from a deeply segregated steel town to a black-led center of medicine and commerce.

"It's never too late," said Mr. Jones, who as a law student watched arguments in Mr. Chambliss's trial. "It is never too late for the truth to be told. It is never too late for wounds to heal. It is never too late for a man to be held accountable for his crimes. It is never too late for justice."

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